Born: August 10, 1923;

Died: October 14, 2020.

RHONDA Fleming, who has died aged 97, was an actress who was a leading Hollywood star of the late-1940s and 1950s. Though she provided significant support in Hitchcock’s black-and-white Spellbound and the classic RKO film noir, Build My Gallows High, she was frequently billed as the “Queen of Technicolor” after her leading roles in two 1949 hits in the new medium: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, opposite Bing Crosby, and The Great Lover, in which she starred with Bob Hope.

Rhonda Fleming did not merely make the transition from monochrome to colour; she was versatile enough to hold her own in almost any genre. She appeared in thrillers, romances, westerns, biopics, historical epics, comedies and musicals and even 20th Century Fox’s first 3-D picture, Inferno, and the first 3-D musical, Paramount’s Those Redheads from Seattle.

After what she called “semi-retirement” from the big screen in the 1960s, she had successful cabaret residencies at Las Vegas, recorded an album, and well into the 1970s was a regular guest star on some of the biggest television programmes.

She was born Marilyn Louis on August 10, 1923, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, the younger daughter of Harold Louis, an insurance agent originally from Illinois; her mother Effie was an actress who had appeared on the New York stage opposite Al Jolson in 1915.

She attended Beverly Hills High School and, at the age of 16, was spotted crossing the road by the talent agent Henry Willson, who had already “discovered” Lana Turner, and was later to launch and manage the careers of Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue and other “beefcake” stars of the 1950s.

Willson, who renamed almost all his clients, gave her the name Rhonda Fleming and introduced her to the producer David O Selznick, who put her under contract. Her first film role was as an uncredited dance-hall girl in the John Wayne picture In Old Oklahoma (1943). She had two more bit-parts the following year, while the studio system prepared her for bigger things.

In 1945, she played Miss Carmichael, a patient in the asylum in Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Spellbound, now regarded as a classic, and the following year had substantial supporting roles in two well-crafted and well-received films: the western Abilene Town and the noir-ish horror The Spiral Staircase.

Adventure Island (1947), based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb Tide, was her first film as the leading lady, opposite Rory Calhoun; the same year she appeared in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, better known in Britain as Build My Gallows High, which also starred Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, and is now viewed as one of the best examples of film noir.

In 1949, she was the leading lady in two of the year’s biggest hits, both colour pictures in which her red hair made an impact on audiences. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court was a musical adapted from Mark Twain’s novel, and placed her opposite Bing Crosby as his medieval English love interest, as well as showcasing her own singing; in The Great Lover, often also billed as My Favourite Redhead, she was an impoverished duchess, appearing alongside Bob Hope, as a hapless scoutmaster who gets caught up in a murder in Paris.

Rhonda Fleming now seemed established as one of the leading female stars of what was subsequently regarded as the Golden Age of Hollywood but, with a couple of notable exceptions, her subsequent films never quite cemented that status. “I wasn’t fortunate enough to get good directors,” she later said (rather ungratefully, since they included John Sturges and Fritz Lang), though she also conceded that she chose her roles poorly. The fault, however, was not merely her lack of judgment and guidance, but the studio system, which too often seemed unsure of how to make the most of her abilities, especially after she parted company with Selznick in 1950.

She was often the token love interest in westerns, several times opposite either Ronald Reagan or John Payne, but RKO came up with another first-rate film noir, Cry Danger (1951) in which she shone as a femme fatale. The Golden Hawk (1952) was a pirate movie, and the next year she played Cleopatra in Serpent of the Nile, which suffered as a sprawling historical epic by having a minuscule budget and being shot in a fortnight.

After her 3-D outings in Inferno and Those Redheads From Seattle (both 1953) she was in half a dozen indifferent historical adventures, thrillers and westerns. Of the last, Tennessee’s Partner (1955) had her opposite both Reagan and Payne, but was chiefly notable for the fact that a rock structure featured in the film’s location was subsequently named after her.

An exception was 1957’s Gunfight at the OK Corral, Sturges’s classic of the genre in which she was the female lead opposite Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. That year she also appeared in The Buster Keaton Story and Gun Glory, opposite Stewart Granger and launched a nightclub act at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. The following year she released her only LP, entitled Rhonda. Her career in Hollywood features effectively ended in 1959 with Alias Jesse James, a western spoof in which she was again paired up with Hope, though she later made half a dozen minor pictures.

From the 1960s, she was more often to be seen on the small screen, with several appearances on Wagon Train, stints on TV panel and chat shows

and specials, and guest appearances on the likes of The Virginian, McMillan and Wife, Kung Fu and The Love Boat. In the mid-1970s, she had some theatre roles, including a brief stint on Broadway, and revived her cabaret act.

She lived much of the time in Palm Springs, and was a vocal supporter of the Republicans, and of mandatory school prayers.

She set up or supported several charities, notably for cancer patients, after her elder sister, Beverly, died of ovarian cancer.

Rhonda Fleming had three marriages in each decade from the 1940s, none of which lasted longer than a couple of years: to Tom Lane (1940-42), Lewis Morrill (1952-54) and Lang Jeffries (1960-62), the last of whom had been her co-star in the Italian epic Revolt of the Slaves (1960).

In 1965 she married Hall Bartlett, later the producer of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. They divorced in 1972 and five years later she married Ted Mann, owner of a cinema chain. He died in 2001, and she then married, in 2003, Darol Carlson, who predeceased her in 2017. She had one son, by her first marriage.